As Justice Secretary, I helped fix a prison crisis. Here's how Nicola Sturgeon created the current one – Kenny MacAskill

The Scottish Government is seeking emergency powers to release prison inmates early. But current overcrowding problems are the result of years of poor decisions

Prison numbers are rising, staff are struggling to manage, and an early release scheme’s being brought in. Scotland isn’t alone as it’s mirrored down south. But Scotland was in a good place and a course laid by the Scottish Prisons Commission under Henry McLeish, so what’s gone wrong?

We just shouldn’t be here. Numbers in custody are back where they were in 2012, with a further predicted rise alarming HM Inspector of Prisons. This is the product of Sturgeonism.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

When I took office, I inherited a similar crisis. In 2007, the only new prison constructed in decades was the private one at Kilmarnock, which opened in 1999. Others went back even to the Victorian era. A prison building process was underway, but they were to be private. That would have seen a situation arise where so much of the estate was in the private sector that a tipping point would be reached. The cost of paying for them would have meant there was little or no capital for construction of the public estate.

Scotland's prisons are struggling to cope with the rising numbers of inmates (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)Scotland's prisons are struggling to cope with the rising numbers of inmates (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Scotland's prisons are struggling to cope with the rising numbers of inmates (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

That was one of the reasons for my cancellation of the private HMP Bishopbriggs, bringing it inhouse. There were others including the principle that prisons should be state not private and the cost because private prisons, as with PFI hospitals, cost an arm and a leg. Sadly, I couldn’t cancel the private prison at Addiewell as the penalty clauses were too high. But along with those two, renovations took place, with Edinburgh and Perth largely rebuilt on site and HMP Grampian constructed, replacing Aberdeen which closed.

Read More
Scottish Government plans to release prisoners serving sentences under four year...

Community payback

They were challenging times. It was only through the goodwill and great efforts of prison staff that we were able to get through it, working in situations where they could have refused to take any more admissions and even dealing with challenges such as plumbing collapses at old jails. Early release had to be considered, but was thankfully avoided.

Just as importantly, the McLeish Commission and then Elish Angiolini’s review of women prisoners set out agreed action plans. Prisons there had to be but for those who were a danger or for whom no other sentence was appropriate. For more minor offences, payback through work in the community, not free accommodation at massive cost to the taxpayer, was pushed. Great efforts were put into winning public support.

Numbers were coming down; crime decreasing and reoffending reducing. Progress was being made. Attitudes, hearts and minds were being won over.

Common sense replaced by platitudes

So how did we get here? Well Sturgeon kicked the can, or the prison-building programme, down the road, a political trait of hers. Both Glasgow, a replacement for Barlinnie, and Highlands, replacing Inverness, are behind schedule by several years. So, there’s limited capacity.

Her ending of early automatic release made the situation worse, increasing the numbers in prison serving longer sentences, keeping them in for an extended period. It’s been a slow burn but the fire she lit is now engulfing the system.

Moreover, the common sense of the McLeish Commission was replaced by platitudes and a focus on transgender prisoners, superseding the need to argue for rehabilitation and reform. We don’t need a new plan, we just need the prison-building programme implemented, and the plans already there followed – not gender ideology distractions.

Kenny MacAskill is Alba MP for East Lothian